Wednesday, May 02, 2012


Delegating to the Proprietaries

This is one of those “thinking out loud” posts, as opposed to some sort of fully thought out proposal.  Constructive feedback is very, very welcome.

I read the Chronicle piece on the University of North Texas at Dallas, and had to sigh.  UNT-Dallas is styling itself a disruptive innovation, complete with references to Clayton Christensen and BYU-Idaho. Its breakthroughs include a year-round teaching calendar, a narrowly-focused career-driven curriculum, and recruitment of younger and more upscale students.  To the future!

Um, no.

Those are all variations on conventional practice.  Work speedups -- the twelve-month calendar -- are not conceptual breakthroughs.  Narrow, career-focused curricula have existed for decades.  And it’s hardly groundbreaking to notice that affluent 19 year olds are easier to serve, in many ways, than 30 year olds attending part time.  

Bluntly, my former employer -- Proprietary U -- did all of those things back in the 1990’s.  Clayton Christensen wasn’t there, but I was.  I taught full-time, twelve months a year, as did everyone else.  The place was resolutely career-focused.  And it recruited with legendary vigor.

Imitating the for-profits is not the way to go.  I’m thinking we need to try a very different direction.

To this point, most people in traditional higher ed have regarded the for-profits, if at all, as interlopers or, at best, competitors.  What if, instead, we regarded them as a permanent feature of the higher ed landscape?  How might we deal with them?

Delegate.  Let them do what they do best, and let public higher ed do what it does best.

Here’s what that might mean:

Let the for-profits handle the really high-cost vocational programs.  It’s their niche, they’re (sometimes) good at it, and they can charge enough to sustain themselves while doing it.  

Let community colleges focus on their historic strength: general education.  Let us do the transferable gen eds that we do so well, and cheaply, and leave the difficult high-cost stuff to the folks who can charge accordingly.

This might look like surrender, but I think of it as specialization.  Since community colleges have a long history of teaching, say, English composition, let us focus on that.  Let us focus on the stuff that we do more of than anybody else, so we can get better at it.  Let the for-profits do what they do best, and let the cc’s do what the cc’s do best.

This position puts me outside the usual camps.  One camp says that the way to compete with the for-profits is to do it all.  Another says that we should become more like them, and focus more intensely on workforce training.  I’m thinking those are both basically doomed.  The way to thrive in the new normal is not to try to be great at everything; the world is just too big.  Instead, it’s to find something you do really well, and own that.  Let the for-profits handle HVAC repair and dental hygiene; let the community colleges do the first two years of four year degrees.

Wise and worldly readers, what say you?  Does this seem sustainable, or is this just surrender by another name?  Is there a better way that doesn’t involve the magical appearance of the money fairy?

Sounds good to me. I specialize in teaching Composition and am good at it. If I tried Literature or Math, I would have a learning curve besides having to take different graduate classes.

CC's teach gen ed courses well. I agree. Specialize.
Doing the first two years of a 4-year degree sounds good (and the CC's already have a lock on that, since the proprietary institutions don't attempt it at all with minor exceptions). But are you prepared to shrink your campus by a huge fraction? And are you comfortable with consigning the career-ed students like dental hygeine to a system where there is no state or CC district subsidy?

In my neck of the woods, the CC's ride on their reputation for good technical-vocational programs. If we were looking only at the Gen Ed parts of the curriculum, the proportion that is remedial (and the low completion rates) would damage the institution's reputation.
I think this model has potential, but it isn't a panacea. My institution has a solid foundation in gen ed. In fact, gen ed pays for all the vocational/technical programs. That would make for a good transition into the type of system DD recommends.

The problem is that English Composition isn't sexy and the admins want sexy. We have grown by accretion, not by recruiting and now the accretion disk is drying up. The received wisdom is that you have to have new programs to get more students in this kind of atmosphere. But, if we were to jettison the Career/Technical Ed. programs, strengthen our gen ed offerings and RECRUIT, we could do fairly well.
I have two thoughts on this. First, how much would the focus on gen ed and transfer erode political support for CCs? I know that everyone's state legislature is cutting higher ed budgets left and right, but would this increase the problem for CCs if they can no longer push the workforce development angle? If CCs are seen as simply the first two years of a four-year degree, then the stakeholder mix would seem to change pretty dramatically.

My other thought is that this would work best if it were formalized with the existing four-year state colleges and universities. My understanding is that the Pennsylvania system is (was?) more or less organized along these lines. Only a relatively small number of students took all four years of courses on the main campus; the rest started out in branch campuses and then transferred to the main campus for their last two years. It's been quite a while since I lived in Pennsylvania, so I don't know how well this system is holding up.
Career classes are a small part of what my CC does. We already specialize in transfer, but do a poor job of laying out a clear path for those students based on their planned major. This does not exclude classes like the ones I teach, because you can't transfer into engineering as a Junior without having completed physics and calculus.

I'll also add that the idea of a 12 month calendar is as old as the trimester system that one major R1 had in my youth. They were very close to the ideal of three equal-sized "semesters" during the year, but didn't split them into "semi"-semesters to fill in the gaps like I would advocate for a CC. Others had a system that was literally four "quarters", which were all the same number of weeks.

The summer quarter also started right after HS got out, offering other opportunities.

One thing that is possible in such a system, but actually illegal (meaning set by state law, not our local non-union contract) at my CC, is to have an annual contract that skips one semester of your choice. I and other faculty would love to teach a "trailer" sequence that runs through the summer, but would burn out like DD says he did if we couldn't trade a full summer term for an equal length fall or spring term.
I missed your "cheaply" remark.

Although I agree with your concept, I think a major flaw in the current funding system is that state universities get twice as much per student for teaching freshmen and sophomore classes as we do, sometimes with the same instructors. We should get the same for the same classes, and they should admit the actual cost of upper division and -- more likely -- graduate education at mediocre state.

Now if you got a system that included expensive programs like Nursing in the second tier (plausible since they are the licensing equivalent to the upper division nursing classes at a university), that might help the other problem as well.

Yes, I know it is an extreme understatement to say "doing this would not be easy". Our alleged partners at the universities would be most unhappy with any CC that proposed this.
My state has an extensive 2-4 year university system plus an even more extensive technical college system, and in some regions (more rural ones) they are effectively merging. For example, in one rust-belt-ish city the 2-year university campus is basically a worker-retraining site for the (much larger) local technical college. In a number of other places, slates of courses are taught cooperatively--i.e., one class, one instructor, but students sign up through the 4-year university or the technical college, depending on what they need the credit for (continuing ed credits, progress toward a degree....) I don't think these developments have happened by design, but perhaps they should. We have a lot of overlap, and the rise of online instruction is creating a whole lot more of it.
I think this abandons much of the original point of community college. My experience with private technicalschools is that they do a poor job compared to our local cc because they try to cheap out on everything - less lab space, less equipment and supplies. Without the competition from the localcc they would have toouch power as gatekeepers - I can see that leading to abuse.
This does seem to miss the existance of public vocational/technical school. There's quite a few of them around here, many older than the local CCs. While it makes some sense to talk about specializing, that doesn't have to mean abandoning public support for those programs.
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